Patrick Cockburn – Inside Baghdad

Inside Baghdad: A city paralysed by fear
By Patrick Cockburn
Published: 25 January 2007

Baghdad is paralysed by fear. Iraqi drivers are terrified of running into impromptu checkpoints where heavily armed men in civilian clothes may drag them out of their cars and kill them for being the wrong religion. Some districts exchange mortar fire every night. This is mayhem beyond the comprehension of George Bush and Tony Blair.

Black smoke was rising over the city centre yesterday as American and Iraqi army troops tried to fight their way into the insurgent district of Haifa Street only a mile north of the Green Zone, home to the government and the US and British embassies. Helicopters flew fast and low past tower blocks, hunting snipers, and armoured vehicles manoeuvred in the streets below.

Many Iraqis who watched the State of the Union address shrugged it off as an irrelevance. “An extra 16,000 US soldiers are not going to be enough to restore order to Baghdad,” said Ismail, a Sunni who fled his house in the west of the city, fearing he would be arrested and tortured by the much-feared Shia police commandos.

It is extraordinary that, almost four years after US forces captured Baghdad, they control so little of it. The outlook for Mr Bush’s strategy of driving out insurgents from strongholds and preventing them coming back does not look good.

On Monday, a helicopter belonging to the US security company Blackwater was shot down as it flew over the Sunni neighbourhood of al-Fadhil, close to the central markets of Baghdad. Several of the five American crew members may have survived the crash but they were later found with gunshot wounds to their heads, as if they had been executed on the ground.

Baghdad has broken up into hostile townships, Sunni and Shia, where strangers are treated with suspicion and shot if they cannot explain what they are doing. In the militant Sunni district of al-Amariyah in west Baghdad the Shia have been driven out and a resurgent Baath party has taken over. One slogan in red paint on a wall reads: “Saddam Hussein will live for ever, the symbol of the Arab nation.” Another says: “Death to Muqtada [Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist Shia cleric] and his army of fools.”

Restaurants in districts of Baghdad like the embassy quarter in al-Mansur, where I once used to have lunch, are now far too dangerous to visit. Any foreigner on the streets is likely to be kidnapped or killed. In any case, most of the restaurants closed long ago.

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